For Michael Hanke, synthetic biology is “a new type of biology”

In his groundbreaking synthesis, Hanke’s goal was to answer a technical question: Can synthetic biology be used to make genetic material that could help tackle some of humanity’s greatest challenges, like the consequences of…

For Michael Hanke, synthetic biology is “a new type of biology”

In his groundbreaking synthesis, Hanke’s goal was to answer a technical question: Can synthetic biology be used to make genetic material that could help tackle some of humanity’s greatest challenges, like the consequences of climate change? Hanke and his colleagues have reached those goals. “Not only was it possible to do this synthesis, but with exceptional accuracy,” Hanke says. “It’s a new type of biology. It is what made biology possible.”

The implications of the synthesis are huge. The synthetic biology field is officially a “technology” — Hanke explains that it has allowed advances not possible just 20 years ago. The pioneers in this field include Hanke’s colleague “Bamboo” Julfar, who is a co-recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry, as well as Jonathan Wells, who will be presenting the synthetic pathway at the March Madness World Tour, an event put on by CNN and college basketball. Hanke says that his hope now is to teach the next generation of scientists how to collaborate and move forward, to follow the example of most other technology-based industries — from the automobile industry to the computer industry.

Still, Hanke says the field is at a “pre-resistance” stage, a time in which no one has used a technique like this before. Hanke says he envisions synthetic biology going from a technology to a platform for applications ranging from medicine to artificial intelligence to fuel-cell development.

“It’s a new way of looking at biology,” Hanke says. “The tools, the language, the approach, the best practices – they were the tools that commercialized biology. We wanted to move the same way this technology will make biology ubiquitous.”

Since synthesizing the DNA blueprint is so dramatic, Hanke admits that the difficulty of the experiment was the real drama of the project. Hanke’s success of bringing human protein into a lab will allow scientists to start to build things with genes, including drugs that could cure diseases and organs designed to fit the genomes of human beings. “As a life scientist, I always wanted to have a molecular biology lab,” Hanke says. “But this is as close as anyone will get until there’s a revolution of synthetic biology.”

Pioneers of the field and others who have aided him in the synthesizing will visit Harvard University March 22-26 for the World Government Summit in Washington, D.C.

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